Review: Sony Cyber-Shot RX100 Mark III

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In full Transformer mode

Two of the most interesting cameras in recent memory – the 645Z and RX100III, at completely opposite ends of the imaging spectrum but both pushing image quality – are arriving this week and I have a fundamental problem: a lack of light. Kuala Lumpur is blanketed in a horrible 100+API haze again that’s eating light and turning the sky into a giant drybox; right after two weeks of fantastic crystal-clear weather during which we had stars every night. I’ve made the most of the windows of opportunity, but in an ideal world I’d have liked to push the dynamic range of the thing a bit more.

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Review: The 2013 Sony A7R

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Sony are known for pushing the technological envelope; the first NEX-5 showed us just how small an APS-C camera could be – with decent frame rates and AF speeds, no less. However, the rules of optics are not so easily breakable: lenses still have to be a certain size to cover a certain image circle at a given aperture and focal length. The NEX kit lenses were no smaller than APS-C DSLR lenses – because that’s pretty much what they were. Unfortunately, Sony are also known for serious attention deficit disorder when it comes to products and systems; recently one of their executives (Kimio Maki, GM of Sony’s Digital Imaging Business Group) was quoted as saying he wanted to do something new every six months. A good example is the RX1, superseded by the RX1R a year later, and effectively killed by the A7 and A7R now; new RX1Rs that sold for approx. US$3,300 in Japan plummeted to just US$1,300 or thereabouts in used value the day after the A7 twins were released. I don’t know whether that represents a relentless commitment to innovation at all costs, or whether it’s just sticking it to your customers. Nevertheless, the like the NEX-5 (which I owned, didn’t mind the limited controls, but found pretty good except for tonal palette) – the A7R pushes things a bit further; far enough to be in interesting territory. We now have full frame – and the best full frame sensor at that – in an E-M1-sized body. Surely there has to be a catch somewhere?

Images in this review were shot with the A7R and Zeiss 55/1.8 FE. An extended set on flickr with more samples is here.

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Review: The Sony RX10

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Does a fairly bulky/ heavy, expensive – $1,300 – fixed-lens, (relatively – 1″) small sensor camera have a place in the current camera ecology? Sony seems to think so. The RX10 is all about its lens: a fixed-aperture 24-200/2.8, Zeiss-branded unit that’s about the size of an 85/1.8 for a full frame camera. It is definitely not small. Sensibly, Sony have scaled the rest of the camera to match. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks trying to figure out whether this is perhaps one of the smartest products of late, or fighting an uphill battle. The sad reality is that it probably will disappear as a footnote, overshadowed by its illogical A7 and A7r brethren.

Note: Welcome to the new review format. I’m going to tell you what I think, nothing more, nothing less. I shoot raw and process with ACR/ PS CC with the intention of subjecting the files to my normal workflow and finished-shot standards. If you’re looking for rigorous technical tests, there are other sites who have the time and resources to do it more comprehensively than I do. What I do is actually use the equipment to make photographs – after all, isn’t that the point of a camera?

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Quick thoughts on the Sony A7 and A7R


Image from B&H.

The internet is going to be full of anticipation, excitement, speculation and various forms of virtual hand-wringing over Sony’s latest announcement: full frame mirrorless. I’m sure some bloggers have already had a chance to use one, but given the local market entity’s attitude, don’t expect to see a review from me anytime soon (if at all). As interesting as it is, I simply won’t be able to get a camera. What I can do is put together a few initial thoughts. I don’t normally join the equipment frenzy, but I think this is significant enough that it warrants some serious consideration.

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Sony and Olympus: what does it mean?

Following the accounting scandal that saw former CEO Michael Woodford ousted, Olympus’ coffers were looking decidedly empty; at that point, many potential suitors were rumoured. It turned out that Sony was the one whose offer was accepted. In a share transfer and cash deal – completed about a month ago – Sony pumped US$645 million into the company, to hold a total of 11.5%. What’s more interesting is that on most of the major business sites, this wasn’t reported as a transaction to invest in the cameramaker; rather, Olympus was frequently referred to as a ‘world leader in medical imaging’.

Although photographers know and love Olympus as the manufacturer of various quirky cameras and small systems, the truth is that margins in the medical industry – anything with ‘surgical’ or ‘medical’ in its name means an extra couple of zeroes on the end of the price tag – are much, much higher than the camera business. Like Nikon, it’s been making a good chunk of its income from something other than cameras for a long time. (I don’t know how much it makes from dictaphones these days, though.)

I’m going to take off my photographer hat now and wear my analyst/ M&A/ consultant one, for a bit of change of pace. Let’s put the pieces together.

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Last day to enter – win the multispectral Sony NEX-5!

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Today is the last day to enter the Mingthein.com black and white challenge. The prize is a Multispectral Sony NEX-5 (complete with kit lens and everything else a new one comes with, except the strap which I can’t seem to find) that shoots in UV, IR and Visible light – modified by yours truly. It is an outstanding machine for B&W photography, and has no anti-aliasing filter to boot.

I’ve created a new group on Flickr here: The Mingthein.com B&W Challenge specifically for this purpose.

1. Like the site’s Facebook page – title your submission with your Facebook username so I can check. Entries without Facebook usernames will be disqualified.
2. To submit an image, enter it in The Mingthein.com B&W Challenge Flickr group pool.
3. Your image must be in black and white; toning is NOT allowed.
4. Any subject, medium or cameras is fair game. You can shoot large format sheet film if you are so inclined.
5. Postprocessing is allowed, but anything overly done will almost certainly not win on aesthetic grounds.
6. Judging will be by me and the anonymous donor of the camera; our decision is final. The best image will win. And yes, it’s subjective etc – but this is a photography contest, photography is art, and art is a matter of taste.
7. Images will have a better chance of winning if they meet most or all of the important factors; you can find a lengthy discourse here…
8. You must own the rights to the image you submit.
9. The competition will run until the end of January 2013; closing time is 00:00 1 Feb 2013, GMT+8 (i.e. the end of the 1st of Feb when it hits midnight in Kuala Lumpur; easier to give the people in odd timezones a fair chance)
10. Multiple entries are allowed, but I’m going to restrict the pool to one per person per week: think carefully before you submit. You can remove and replace if you shoot something better.
11. You will need a flickr account to post images to the pool, but it’s free to sign up.
12. By entering, you give me and the mingthein.com site the right to re-post your image as part competition announcements and posts.
13. The winner will be announced in the first couple of weeks of February 2013 – depending on when I can meet up with our donor for the judging. We’ll ship the camera to you by EMS shortly thereafter.

Shoot me an email if there are any questions. I think that’s about it – good shooting, and good luck! MT

Competition: Win the multispectral Sony NEX-5!

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In yesterday’s post, I recounted the journey of modifying a digital camera with the intention of creating something that would deliver outstanding out-of-camera black and white results; I had the rich, deep shadows and light but subtle highlights of film in mind, plus the crispness of the best non-AA-filtered cameras. The result, after three days of work and testing – on a camera generously donated by a reader – is a Sony NEX-5 that has no filtration in front of the sensor other than the Bayer pattern – no UV or IR or anti-aliasing. You’re looking at bare silicon if you stare down the lens mount.

Today, I’m happy to announce a competition which will give a reader a chance to own a camera personally modified by me. The camera is as-new cosmetically, is complete with box, kit lens and all accessories as sold (except the strap, that seems to have gone missing); it is out of warranty though (and will be anyway since I ripped out the filter pack).

Since this is a photography site first, and this camera was supposed to be a monochrome machine, it can only mean one thing: a black and white challenge!

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I’ve created a new group on Flickr here: The Mingthein.com B&W Challenge specifically for this purpose.

1. Like the site’s Facebook page – title your submission with your Facebook username so I can check. Entries without Facebook usernames will be disqualified.
2. To submit an image, enter it in The Mingthein.com B&W Challenge Flickr group pool.
3. Your image must be in black and white; toning is NOT allowed.
4. Any subject, medium or cameras is fair game. You can shoot large format sheet film if you are so inclined.
5. Postprocessing is allowed, but anything overly done will almost certainly not win on aesthetic grounds.
6. Judging will be by me and the anonymous donor of the camera; our decision is final. The best image will win. And yes, it’s subjective etc – but this is a photography contest, photography is art, and art is a matter of taste.
7. Images will have a better chance of winning if they meet most or all of the important factors; you can find a lengthy discourse here…
8. You must own the rights to the image you submit.
9. The competition will run until the end of January 2013; closing time is 00:00 1 Feb 2013, GMT+8 (i.e. the end of the 1st of Feb when it hits midnight in Kuala Lumpur; easier to give the people in odd timezones a fair chance)
10. Multiple entries are allowed, but I’m going to restrict the pool to one per person per week: think carefully before you submit. You can remove and replace if you shoot something better.
11. You will need a flickr account to post images to the pool, but it’s free to sign up.
12. By entering, you give me and the mingthein.com site the right to re-post your image as part competition announcements and posts.
13. The winner will be announced in the first couple of weeks of February 2013 – depending on when I can meet up with our donor for the judging. We’ll ship the camera to you by EMS shortly thereafter.
14. There is no time limit on when images have to have been taken.

Shoot me an email if there are any questions. I think that’s about it – good shooting, and good luck! MT

Hands-on-preview: Sony A99, NEX-6, NEX-5R

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I was invited by Sony Malaysia to have a hands-on session with some of the new products announced yesterday; the full-fram Alpha SLT-A99 and grip, NEX-5R, NEX-6 and 16-50 pancake zoom were all present – though unfortunately not the RX1, which is said to be in final beta at the moment. All products were still non-final in firmware and image quality, so I wasn’t allowed to keep any of the files. But what I can do is offer some subjective assessments and opinions on usability, handling and perceived file quality (off the LCD, at least).

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The Sony Alpha A99
Highlights:

  • 24MP full frame CMOS, full HD video, 6fps, 14 bit RAW files
  • 2.7MP OLED VF
  • Translucent mirror; pentaprism phase detect AF with 19 points (11 cross type), sensor contrast detect AF with 102 points
  • Tilting 3″, 1.2-million dot LCD
  • Sensor shift stabilizer
  • Built-in GPS
  • New ISO-standard hotshoe
  • Dual SD slots

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First impressions are of a solid but relatively lightweight camera; subjectively it’s in the Nikon D800E weight category – noticeably lighter than the D700, 5DIII and A900, but not as light as the APS-C cameras. The body is a matte-finish magnesium alloy with a nicely sculpted and very ergonomic grip; there’s only one workable hand position because of the finger detents, but it’s a comfortable one. Major buttons all fall to hand easily, which is good, because there are lots of them – a number of which are customizable through the menus. One thing I do like with all of the new Sony cameras (including the NEX-6, NEX-5R and A99) is the fact that the power switch is around the shutter button – easy to turn on and shoot, and equally easy to turn off in between to prolong your battery life.

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For a non-Sony shooter, the learning curve was fairly steep, but the majority of camera functions were easy to figure out. I’m told that the A99 is aimed at the professional end of the market, and features a 200k shutter life along with environmental sealing. For the most part, it seems that the external control compliment was well chosen, but for the life of me, I couldn’t find any way to change metering other than via the menu. The focus points were also all clustered around the center of the frame in a square – odd, considering the camera also uses the imaging sensor to focus (and there should be no restrictions with live view CDAF). I suspect it has something to do with the phase detect cell in the ‘pentaprism’ (the A99, like all translucent-mirror Sonys does not have a pentaprism but rather an EVF) and correlating results with contrast detect AF. I didn’t see any AF fine tune adjustments (what if the PDAF sensor is misaligned?) but then again I also didn’t have time to go through the menus in great detail.

Overall though, while the camera felt a bit too menu-centric in operation, responsiveness, speed and general usability felt top-notch. Focusing is as fast as any of the traditional DSLRs I’ve used, though I didn’t have an opportunity to try tracking focus. The focus range limiter works well, though requires a bit of practice to become intuitive in use. The EVF felt a notch above that used in the NEX-7 (and NEX-6) – there just seems to be less tearing and an even finer pixel mask than the already excellent units used in those two cameras. Other than the dynamic range and generous information overlay, it’s not immediately obvious that you’re looking through an EVF based solely on resolution alone.

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On image quality – not knowing how final the image processing in the camera is, and not being able to view files on a computer – i.e. judging off the LCD only, for JPEGs, with whatever processing the camera has chosen to apply – the files look pretty clean. Very subjectively, on a pixel level, I think they’d probably be on par with the Nikon D700, and possibly close to the D3s. It seems that after a generation of evolution in sensor technology, pixels have been allowed to shrink again without too much detrimental effect on noise performance. Side by side with the RX100 I was also carrying (which has the same LCD, and a similar processing engine to the A99) – the A99 appeared a full 2-2.5 stops cleaner, with ISO 12,800 looking quite similar to ISO 3200. This of course bodes well for other cameras that may use the same sensor as a base – the RX1 and newly announced Nikon D600 come to mind. I don’t know if I’ll get around to doing a full review of this camera – it may be meaningless as I don’t have the lenses to use it in my normal course of work, and probably not enough time either – but I definitely think it bears further investigation.

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The Sony NEX-6
Highlights:

  • 16MP APS-C CMOS, full HD video, 10fps, 14 bit RAW files
  • 2.4MP OLED VF
  • Hybrid contrast and phase-detect AF (99 sites)
  • Tilting 3″, 921k-dot LCD
  • New ISO-standard hotshoe

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The NEX-6 feels much like a NEX-7 light – I was told that the market liked the NEX-7, but didn’t like the price point; so Sony went out and filled the gap between. It’s very much a mix of the two cameras on either side of it – it has the same 16MP sensor as the NEX-5R, complete with phase detect points for faster AF, and the body style and EVF of the NEX-7. It’s also a bit thinner than the NEX-7, and has an ISo-standard hotshoe. This new hotshoe – shared with the A99 – has the usual trigger pin in the center, but its electronic communication contacts are in the front portion of the shoe; let’s hope the design of the corresponding accessory shoes on the flashes etc is sufficiently robust, because some of those pins looked rather small and delicate.

This camera actually has two control dials – there’s another one concentrically nestled under the base of the mode dial, along with the familiar one on the back – not the three of the NEX-7. One again, the softkeys are programmable, along with the function button next to the shutter. Overall, the shooting experience was much like the NEX-7, but with the simplicity of the NEX-5 – I actually like this camera better than the other two because it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to do too much. (Curiously the scalloping on the top plate before the mode dial and grip shape remind me very much of the Sony V3 prosumer camera from around 2005 or so, which I also owned.)

The one thing you’re all probably wondering about is AF speed, especially with those extra phase-detect photosites on the sensor. Subjectively, it’s pretty quick under moderately low light (indoor) conditions; there’s no hunting, but perhaps the lens could be driven a bit faster. Maybe the newer lenses will allow this – the only functional lens we had was the 16/2.8. I’d say it felt about the same as the Olympus OM-D and 12/2 under similar conditions.

Not much to say about perceived image quality for this one – the files definitely didn’t look as clean on the LCD as those from the A99; I’d say it’s probably on par with existing cameras that use the predecessor to this sensor (D7000, NEX-5N etc).

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The final camera I’ll quickly mention is the NEX-5R – it shares the same new 16MP sensor with phase detect points with the NEX-6; performance felt almost identical in terms of AF speed, and one presumes image quality would be similar, too. It does gain a touch screen which flips through 180 degrees for the narcissistic photographer. Effectively, it’s the same camera as the NEX-6 minus one the EVF and mode dial. Also present was the new 16-50 pancake zoom, but I didn’t have a chance to shoot with it because it was a non-functional prototype. The size is a little thicker than the 16/2.8 (but not much) – similar to the Panasonic 14-42 X – and like that lens, it uses a rocker switch on the side to zoom. I’m told it will also be available as a kit lens to go with the NEX-6.

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Now that Photokina is officially just around the corner, not only are the announcements coming thick and fast, but the rumor mill is going into overdrive. Many of the big boys in the industry – notably Canon, Leica, Zeiss, Hasselblad and Olympus – have yet to make their announcements; I’m anticipating a busy month ahead. And lets just say there are some very interesting products in the pipeline which will come from far left field. As usual, I’ll be reviewing products of interest to me professionally first, but if something else catches my eye, I’ll do what I can to squeeze it in. MT

A big thank you to Sony Malaysia for the invitation.

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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